What place does a sceptre have in a democracy?

The “sengol” controversy brings the clash between divine authority and democratic ideals to the fore, challenging the very essence of governance.

Published : Jun 20, 2023 13:21 IST - 16 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi carries the ‘Sengol’ into the Lok Sabha chamber of the new Parliament building.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi carries the ‘Sengol’ into the Lok Sabha chamber of the new Parliament building. | Photo Credit: ANI

At one of our philosophy training camps, I asked the young participants what they considered was a landmark in the realm of thought in the last few centuries. Was it the principle of equality, the concept of individualism, the idea of a welfare state, or a permissive cultural turn normalising hedonism? A discussion ensued, at the end of which I said, “All these are important, of course, but the seismic shift underlying all these is the move to divest authority of its claim to divine stature. This is the historic change that marked the end of an old world order and shaped the modern world as we see it today. It remains a promise and hope for all future. The ideas of human rights, equality, and the welfare state—they all turn on this singular pivot.”

The very thought—authority sans divinity—is novel to humankind and can outrage a traditional mind. I was born in Travancore 15 years after the long shadow of monarchy finally receded in 1947. But people like my father, who were born in the 1920s, were ardent royalists and fierce opponents of democracy. If someone told my father that the Travancore King was no different from common mortals, he would have had a fit of rage or broken down in tears. Several years later, when I met the then Maharaja of Travancore, I could not take a seat in front of him, even when he repeatedly pressed me to, because at the back of my mind I felt that my father, the late Sankarapillai Bahuleyan Pillai, would not have approved of it. Traditionalism, after all, still has a vicelike grip on us.

The association of monarchs with divinity is age-old across the world. All of India’s kings belonged to the Suryavamsa, Chandravamsa or Agnivamsa clans, claiming descent from the sun, moon, or fire gods, though born of human wombs. The King of Travancore was twice-born through a Vedic ritual called Hiranyagharba. As the priests chanted the Vedas, the king would descend into a golden trough filled with panchagavya—a mixture of five ingredients derived from the cow, namely dung, urine, milk, ghee and curd—only to emerge on the other side. Thus he symbolically entered the womb of the divine cow and was born again. The Maratha warrior Shivaji assumed the title of Chhatrapati only after the Brahmin priest Gaga Bhatta performed a similar ritual of holy ablution.

From sceptre to ballot, the evolution of power in India

In 1749, King Marthanda Varma of Travancore prostrated before the Ananta Padmanabha deity of Thiruvananthapuram with his royal sword, and went on to rule under the name Sri Padmanabha Dasan, the god’s servant. By this manoeuvre, he instantly transformed all rebel chieftains into godless sinners deserving of punishment; they were brutally killed, their womenfolk captured and sold. Once the king became god’s representative, even the cruelties he inflicted assumed divine sanction.

In 1948, the Travancore King’s divine authority was unceremoniously snatched away by an emissary of Vallabhbhai Patel, and Travancore became part of India. A new head of state was elected to power. People like my father could not stomach it. The new ruler Pattom A. Thanu Pillai was just another Pillai like my father! By what authority could he assume power?

Until the last century, it was widely believed that treason and blasphemy amounted to the same thing. Royal authority was tied to divinity through religion. The clergy accorded the king the seal of divine approval. In turn, the king established the clergy as direct representatives of god. Vedic Brahmins, Christian priests, Islamic clerics, and Buddhist monks were all empowered to designate the king as divine.

Resistance to this tradition of apotheosis came gradually, built by hundreds of philosophers, political thinkers, and writers, who shaped an alternative vision, often paying for such heresy with their lives. Beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta in Britain, secularisation of authority—the idea that rulers have no special divine mandate—evolved over the centuries in Europe. It must be counted as one of the great miracles of the last century that India too adopted this foreign idea.

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This miracle, I would say, was wrought by Gandhi. Dressed as a humble peasant, he embodied the idea that a leader may arise from anywhere; his very appearance symbolised it. Indians accepted the leadership of a half-naked fakir in the place of an emperor with crown and regalia, thereby ushering in the age of democracy.

India’s first democratic leaders were all defined by the same simplicity. Kamaraj used to casually walk down the road with his followers. E.M.S. Namboothiripad would go to the Secretariat on foot carrying his own bag. He asserted that Gandhi lived on in all of them. In a span of just 75 years, such leaders have become a lost tribe.

In the last century, all positions of power—from king to local village chieftain—were considered sacrosanct. The authority of the village headman in Tamil Nadu depended on the village priest giving him pride of place and a ceremonial headdress at the local temple festival. In Thoppil Mohammad Meeran’s novel Harbour, we see the authority of the Muslim leader manifest in his sitting at the head of the prayer gathering and sending his turban to the mosque on a platter.

This tradition of sanctification of authority did not, in fact, trickle down from the kings; rather, it grew bottom up from our cultural roots. Among the Travancore tribes like Paliyars and Kanikars, it is the priest who vests the chieftain with authority. The priest, who communicates directly with the deity and through whom oracular utterances are made, is himself often worshipped by tribesmen. The staff in such a priest’s hand becomes the foremost sign of authority. Until a hundred years ago, the priests of the Kanikar tribe never laid their staff down on any occasion. According to anthropologist Karasur Padmabharati, the nomadic Narikuravas carry their deity inside a cloth bundle, which must never touch the ground. Their leadership too draws authority from their deity.

The earliest sceptre was, in fact, the staff held by a priest. Even today, it is seen in the hands of Hindu saints across traditions. The Vaishnavite tradition is called the Tridhandi (three staff) Sampradayam while the heritage of Adi Sankara, who united all traditions, was called Ekadhandi (single staff) Sampradayam. The transfer of divinely sanctioned power is effected by the ritual of the religious leader handing over the sceptre to the king.

The word chengol for sceptre is found in ancient Tamil literature, where it is often referred to simply as kol (rod). When a king’s rule resulted in miscarriage of justice, his sceptre was labelled a kodungol or crooked staff; the prefix kodu refers to bending. (Even today, kodungol is a metonym for tyranny.) A chengol, on the other hand, referred to an unbent sceptre signifying wise and just governance. The Tamil tradition prescribes five articles as the regalia ceremonially given to a king during his coronation: the chengol or sceptre, white parasol, chowrie or fan, crown, and throne.

The coronation was a religious affair officiated by religious heads. Ancient Tamil texts such as the Puranaanooru show that from the Sangam period on, Tamil kings performed yajnas (holy fire offerings) and patronised Vedic Brahmins. The power vested in Tamil kings was sanctified by the holy authority of the Brahmins, whose holiness was in turn legitimised by the kings. Tamil poet-saint Nammazhwar sang, “In the royal form of His Exalted Majesty, I see Lord Vishnu.” Later, the deity himself came to be reimagined as a monarch. The temple rituals of Tamil Nadu from the Chola period onward treat the deity as king, and 16 daily services called the shodasha upacharam areperformed on the deity, from waking the deity up in the morning, to bathing, feeding, and adorning, right up to bedtime rituals with fanning and lullabies.

This conflation of regal and divine power was, in fact, the norm almost across the world. Historically, most monarchs have held a sceptre. When India came under British rule, the coronation of Queen Victoria was celebrated with pomp and splendour here. A canal called Ananta Victoria Canal still runs near my house, the name testifying how the god Ananta Padmanabha and Queen Victoria were linked together in the popular imagination. When regional poets wrote eulogies to the Crown, they envisioned Queen Victoria as sceptred by the Hindu pantheon.

During British rule, the symbolism of the sceptre spread to all levels of authority. A footman in bright livery would walk ahead of district collectors and high court magistrates with a ceremonial mace. That colonial custom of a chobdar or macebearer continues even today; we persist in deifying anyone who holds authority.

Democracy is fundamentally antithetical to what the ceremonial staff or sceptre represent. The sceptre confers upon the ruler the status of a deity, whereas democracy makes the ruler one of us. Kamaraj bore no sceptre, but was by far the best “ruler” of Tamil Nadu in the last 2,000 years, the architect of modern Tamil Nadu. Erasing this understanding of the ruler would mean collectively regressing to the past. We dishonour the legacy of the philosophers and writers who realised for India the promise of democracy.

Conspiracy theories and the erosion of historical truth

I am articulating these concerns in the context of the recent installation in Parliament of a chengol.  On 9 May 2019, a reader asked me about this sceptre based on a message he had received on WhatsApp. I provided a detailed explanation on my website. As is my wont, I posted his letter in its entirety, including the forwarded message. Unfortunately, some impatient non-reader concluded on the basis of the first few paragraphs that I was endorsing the WhatsApp history about the sceptre and sent it to the high command, who in turn cited it as evidence. English newspapers have already pointed out this absurdity.

I am gravely concerned by the fanatical mindset that swears by WhatsApp history. The moment a conspiracy theory declares something as having been “hidden”, the burden of proof is automatically removed from the speaker’s side. Offering any evidence becomes both unnecessary and impossible because the absence of evidence is already attributed to erasure.  

The public attitude to history seems rooted in a specific delusion: “We are a superior people; our enemies are out to erase our glorious past.” This line of thinking is the bedrock of fascism. Nobody who laments the conspiratorial “erasure” of history seems concerned about the actual historical legacy being debased and destroyed today. Many Hindu shrines lie in ruins, visibly neglected. But for a gullible populace the only history worth fighting for is in the past.

“The public attitude towards history seems rooted in a specific delusion: “We are a superior people; our enemies are out to erase our glorious past.” This line of thinking is the foundation of fascism.”

In my earlier essay, I clearly mentioned that a sceptre was indeed gifted to Nehru and, as a Hindu, I was pleased about it. However, there is still no evidence that the act of handing over the sceptre led to the transfer of power. On the night of 14 August 1947, many tokens and gifts were sent to Nehru, including pots filled with holy Ganga water; a chadar from Ajmer, etc. Such souvenirs are regularly offered to rulers by various religious leaders, as expected in a country whose people are largely religious. Not only is the claim that the official transfer of power came about through a sceptre incompatible with historical facts, but it is also anti-democratic because it tends to sanctify the ruler as a representative of god. 

Chola sceptre and Shaivite influence

But first, some fundamental questions. Is this the sceptre of the Cholas? Absolutely not. There is little concrete data about the Chola period; its history is known only from inscriptions about land grants found in temples and coins, and from mentions in literary texts. From K.A. Nilakanta Sastri to Kudavayil Balasubramaniam, all researchers have conjecturally reconstructed Chola history from the minimal data available.

For the film Ponniyin Selvan, we gathered data for costumes and ornaments from the miniature stone carvings in ancient temples like Darasuram. For instance, we debated a full month on whether Chola warriors wore helmets in battle. As the film’s writer, I often wrote to Mani Ratnam about such details. Nobody can thus authoritatively testify to the actual shape of the Chola sceptre. The one gifted to Nehru was designed by Vummidi Bangaru Chetty, a Chennai jeweller. The Nandi icon atop the sceptre is the traditional symbol of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam and not of the Cholas.

Another important detail is that while there is no doubt that the Cholas were Shaivites—their religious guru was the Shaivite scholar Karuvurthevar—their chief minister Aniruddha Brahmarayar was a Vaishnavite scholar. The Chola government was not a partisan Shaivite government; like many other governments of the time, it accommodated all faiths. The Cholas erected many Vaishnava temples; King Rajaraja Chola funded Choodamani Vihara, a Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam; several Jain schools were established by Chola patronage, such as Rajaraja Perumpalli and Rajendra Perumpalli. It is unlikely the Chola coronation would have had an exclusively Shaivite ritual.

The next question is whether these Shaivite mutts offered the sceptre to the Cholas. Once again, the answer is a categorical no. According to Hindu tradition, until the 13th century, only Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas had the birth right to become renunciates. The Shudras were bound to serve the first three varnas and denied the right to renounce worldly ties. It was only in the 14th century CE, long after the end of Chola rule that Shaivism split into 12 sects and the Adheenam mutts headed by Shudra leaders emerged in Tamil Nadu, spearheading a revivalist movement. Their emergence marked a watershed in Indian history, upending the rigid caste structure of the time.

“Fundamentalism can never be the guardian of faith; it is the archenemy that seeks to destroy a religion. However, the greatest threat we face is the destruction of democracy.”

The Cholas were almost completely vanquished by the Pandyas as early as 1279, nearly a century before these Adheenam mutts were founded. By the time they emerged, there was no trace left of the Chola dynasty and so it is impossible that they had anything to do with the Cholas. After these mutts were founded, monarchy continued in Tamil Nadu for about 400 years, with the Nayaks and the Marathas. Patronised by them, the mutts became rich and powerful oligarchies in their own right, administering temples and running educational centres for the propagation of Shaivism and Tamil. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that these kings transferred power through sceptres offered by these mutts.

Wild mythmaking and threats to democracy and religious harmony

In India, history has a propensity to transmogrify instantly into legend. Most of what has come down as Indian history is rooted in mythology. The mythmaking machinery has continued in the modern political arena. From E.V. Ramasamy to present-day rulers, everyone’s life story has been embellished. Even today, people throng M.G.R.’s memorial in Chennai, drawn by the urban legend about his wristwatch ticking from inside the tomb.

Those in power press such myths ingeniously into service to strengthen their hands. One recalls how Karunanidhi was addressed as “Chola” and M.G.R. as “Chera”. M.G.R. presented a sceptre to Jayalalithaa; Karunanidhi too has been photographed with a sceptre in hand. The same story is repeating itself with the sceptre today.

What are the dangers inherent in such wild, irresponsible mythmaking? First, if the sceptre presented by a Shaivite mutt and installed in Parliament is the symbol of an all-encompassing sovereign authority, what then is the place of Vaishnavism in the country? Is the Nandi icon atop the sceptre acceptable to Vaishnavites? If a specific Shaivite Mutt has the authority to thus transfer power, what is the role of the hundreds of other Mutts? What is the contribution of other faiths such as Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism to nation building? Are non-religious citizens also subject to the authority of a faith-based symbol? Does an Advaitic follower of Narayana Guru like me have a place in this scheme of things? What might be the far-reaching consequences of this action?

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I have always insisted that fundamentalism does not really care for any culture or religion; it only manipulates them to serve its ends. If the present ruling dispensation had any regard for religion or religious prescripts, it would not have invited the Shaivite gurus to Delhi and made them line up at the ceremony. According to Hindu tradition, it is the king or the president who is subservient to a religious head, who visits and pays respects to them. Summoning them to a public ceremony is a travesty of that tradition. The sight of religious gurus abjectly lining up in front of political authorities felt like an insult; I was moved to tears. It seemed to toll the death knell of a civilisation.

Fundamentalism can never be the guardian of faith; it is the arch enemy that goes all out to destroy a religion. But the greatest threat we face is that of the destruction of democracy. When we choose someone as our ruler by popular vote, the authority they wield is entirely what our electoral mandate grants them. It is this right of franchise that empowers people to make demands of the rulers and dictate terms to them; indeed, it is the very foundation of the rights-based struggles and agitations we see around us. Instead, if we allow that the ruler’s authority is somehow sacred or divinely ordained, then we can only plead with the leaders; we forfeit our right to demand. The right to demand is the fundamental guarantee of democracy.

Elevating an elected ruler to the status of a hero, martyr, or legend weakens democracy. Ascribing divine status to a ruler deals a death blow to democracy. It would mean abandoning every hard-won right our forefathers bequeathed us and resigning ourselves to slavery. We would be blowing out the last flickers of light to sink into the depths of darkness. Many of our neighbours have already receded into such darkness and we have a definite lesson to learn from their fate. Fundamentalism will only bring about absolute economic ruin and eventual war—history does not have a single exception to this rule.

Jeyamohan is a writer and critic. This essay has been translated from the Tamil original by Iswarya V.

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